Yesterday’s Rochester and Strood by-election returned Mark Reckless as UKIP’s second Member of Parliament. As I discussed in an earlier post, this completes the pattern of voters using their by-election ballots in much the same way they voted in the European elections.
We have therefore reached the end of the beginning. UKIP have gathered as much momentum as possible from the popularity of their EU platform and capitalized by winning two of a possible three seats in the only by-elections likely to be available before the May 2015 General Election. They have forced the Conservative and Labour parties to start talking tough on immigration, and Farage has delightedly said that if Rochester was ranked 271st most winnable, there are 270 easier seats to target.
What will the beginning of the middle part be like?
UKIP now has to become a cohesive party, with its leader and two MPs fully supporting their General Election manifesto and giving the same answers to the same questions. They need to continue their intensive grassroots campaigns in targeted seats. They need to decide on whether they are committed to preserving the NHS in its current form, and give straight answers on issues like whether they would cut overseas aid. If they can do this, voters wanting change will start or continue to see them as a party to vote for on policy rather than protest, and the party will be around for a while. Farage will win his seat, Reckless and Carswell will retain theirs, and they will be likely to pick up a few others elsewhere.
Alternatively, if the level of campaigning drops even slightly, or if the three main figures in the party fall out with each other, they could end up still with two MPs after May 2015. Mark Reckless won by a smaller margin in Rochester than opinion polls had suggested, and Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst needs fewer than 1,500 voters to switch from UKIP in order to unseat him at the General Election. So we could see Farage elected, Carswell retaining his seat and Reckless losing his, leaving the net total exactly the same.
What about the other 270 more UKIP-friendly seats? The fact is, Rochester was ranked 271st most winnable before Reckless defected, not after. The ranking referred to the likelihood of UKIP winning if they put up a candidate in competition with Reckless, who had a large majority as a Conservative MP. (That has now decreased: in 2009, he was elected as a Conservative MP by a 9,953 majority; yesterday, he was elected as a UKIP MP by a 2,900 majority.)
Ahead of Rochester, there was a lot of media speculation that a win for Reckless would see more Conservative MPs defecting to UKIP. That narrative has already shifted, with BBC political editor Nick Robinson now saying it is unlikely any MP will want to trigger a by-election so close to the General Election.
This stage for UKIP will be all about the levels of genuine support on the basis of policy, and continuing the success of their targeted campaigning. For the other parties, they absolutely need to start taking away different conclusions and concentrate on building honest and energetic grassroots campaigns.